Expectations are funny, aren’t they?
I was at a swanky dinner event at a prestigious private North Shore club a few weeks back with a friend. People were treating me like her date-and technically I was, in the platonic sense, but when a man and a woman are at an event like this people default to the way you would treat a couple, the familiar conversational patterns, the smirks and nods. It’s the way we’re hardwired. I’m actually convinced it’s harder for people to accept when a man and a woman are out together alone platonically than it is for them to believe two people of the same gender are out together romantically.
Anyway, I’m making conversation-it’s what I do, I never shut up-and I threw out a phrase that caused at least one jaw to drop.
“Oh, I was the backup plan,” I said.
Well, I was. I was there because another guy wasn’t. I was also fairly annoyed at this other guy. Not because I didn’t want to go. Even halfway through dinner I was still reeling at the dude’s excuse. He claimed he hadn’t had his new suit tailored and thus had nothing to wear.
This is not a man’s excuse to get out of a date.
Every guy has a suit. We have to have a suit. We need a suit for weddings, funerals, and the occasional court date. (“How do you plead?”) You should also have one in the event a pretty girl asks you to take her somewhere nice. Have a few ties handy. Keep a shirt dry-cleaned. You don’t need to be Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale” here. You just need a suit. I’m a confirmed mess, too-if I could wear a cat-hair repellent black tee shirt, jeans and Doc Martens every day of my life, I’d be pretty content. And even <b>I</b> have a suit.
So, unless the guy had recently lost or gained twenty pounds or accidentally destroyed his last suit-guys know what I mean: we don’t throw out the old suit until you can see through it when it’s held up to the light-there had to be a sports coat somewhere in his life.
Apparently, the suit excuse was covering up the fact that the guy was going to karaoke instead, but that is neither here nor there. The important part is that I got a text message at four in the afternoon saying, “You’re it, what time can you pick me up?”
Up until then, I thought my pretty friend was going to bring a date to said event, and I hadn’t quite fully prepared for it, mentally. I mean “fully prepared for it” by “getting ready to be surrounded by rich people.” Rich people scare me. I don’t know why. They make me nervous. I think it’s all that money they have. I need time to prepare. And by prepare, I mean, start drinking or find some sort of prescription to abuse.
I pick her up, she gets in the car, and I say, “You and me, we gotta talk.”
I don’t handle fear particularly well. My friend does not handle chaos particularly well. This means that by the time we have arrived at the event, we are in a full-blown argument. She’s telling me to drop her off and leave. (There’s a theme here in my life.) We’re extremely animated people. I imagine this is what would happen if Kermit the Frog and Grover from Sesame Street were married and got into a massive argument because they were lost and Kermit would not stop for directions. Arms were flailing. Voices were raised. It was raining Fraggles and Doozers. It was the Muppetocalypse.
I’m not an arguer. I hate arguing. Most of my relationships have been argument free. This isn’t to say that I am good at diffusing arguments or that I’m an exceedingly passive “yes ma’am” guy. Quite the opposite. There’s a reason a guy ends up thirty-two and living alone with two cats-things don’t usually last long enough for an actual argument to happen. I am, shall we say, unequipped for this situation.
We parked the car and went inside.
Inside, things normalize. In part, it’s the booze, that her coworkers are really genuinely nice, friendly people, and I never shut up, so it’s nice to have new people to talk to. The event is a trip-I’m sworn to secrecy about the actual event, but there were traditions that I swear I will never see repeated again. I have never been surrounded by more perfectly groomed investment bankers with silver-dusted sideburns or more forty-plus year old women with better triceps than me in my entire life. It was a hoot. I was dramatically out of place-a stubble-headed mutt among greyhounds and poodles. It was hilarious.
We’re walking out afterwards-it’s been a surreal evening, but we survived unscathed and we’re still friends, so that’s a good thing. As we’re walking back to the car, I tell her, when I said “you and me, we gotta talk,” I didn’t mean we had to talk about us. I just wanted to tell her she can do better than a guy with no suit coat, or a guy who uses a lack of suit-coatedness and karaoke to skip out on a swanky dinner with a pretty girl.
I have a lot of female friends. They’re important to me. I watch out for them when I can, stand up for them when they let me, and, in the end, want nothing but the best for them. In return, they tolerate my various quirks and, in general, keep me sane and alive. The fact that they’re in my life has caused plenty of problems with the more insecure of my former girlfriends; the ones who have been able to understand why these are my friends have been the best of my relationships, like a barometer for love.
“I wasn’t mad at you,” I said. “I just want to make sure you find a guy who is better than me.”
I mean, that’s not too much to ask, is it?
So I’m driving up to New Hampshire a few weeks back with an ex-girlfriend, on our way to get tattoos. This happens with strange regularity, getting tattoos with exes. It’s not a romantic thing so much as a logistics thing-nobody likes to go to the tattoo parlor alone. I get along very well with most of my exes. And hey, gas is expensive.
“Remember that shoulder injury?” she says, adroitly breaking the tension barrier. This is the first time we’ve hung out face to face since breaking up. There is the occasional awkward pause, but it’s actually a very pleasant conversation-it’s good to see her again.
“Of course I remember the shoulder injury,” I say. Because the shoulder injury is, to be blunt, an SRI: a sex-related injury. You generally don’t forget those, especially when they send one of you to the emergency room.
“My shoulder was never the same,” she says, with a smirk.
It was, perhaps, a defining moment in our relationship. On a humid night in August, we were fooling around, for an extended period of time, basically until we wore ourselves out. Eventually, she gets up and walks across the room. I watch, because she’s the sort of girl you should watch walk across a room any chance you might get, and she walks up to a full-length mirror on her bedroom door. She proceeds to stare at her shoulders, noticing that one is no longer as high as the other. I’d later learn that she was silently crying with pain-and this was a woman with a legendary threshold for injury pain.
“I think I dislocated my shoulder,” she says.
Oh no, I think.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” I say instead. There is a long pause. She can be at times a very still person, and when she does this, the entire world stands still with her. I wait.
“Yes,” she said. And suddenly we’re in my car headed for a local hospital.
Here’s the thing. I’m an old pro at taking girlfriends to the hospital in the middle of the night. One of my college girlfriends had a mysterious and unpredictable condition that would leave her in crippling pain almost without warning. I spent entire nights sitting in hospital waiting rooms across all of Massachusetts and Rhode Island with her. I’m pretty good at that part. I’ve had a lot of practice.
I’m also, for what it’s worth, terrified of hospitals. It’s part germophobia, it’s part bad memories from my own experiences there, but it all adds up to me having a personality transplant when I have to go to an emergency room.
Suffice it to say I was a little… dick-y on the ride over there. She’s smart, she picks up on this. I’m being a dick without saying a word. It’s remarkably easy.
“You can just drop me off,” she says. “I’ll take a cab home.”
“No,” I say. “And if I, or any future man in your life for that matter, ever drops you off and leaves you at the ER by yourself, he should never, ever come back, because he doesn’t [expletive] deserve you. Myself included.”
Now I feel twice as dick-y. We’ll talk about this the next day, when she’s not in as much pain and realizes what I wasn’t saying-I was being dick-y because I was scared, not mad. For now, though, it’s an awkward, quiet car ride to the emergency room. Which is deserted when we arrive. I mean, utterly deserted. It’s just us. And let me tell you, the only thing worse than a crowded emergency room is an empty one when one of you is there with an SRI. Trust me.
She checks in and immediately disappears. I’m left with Seinfeld reruns and old magazines.
I hate Seinfeld. I used to love it. At some point in my life, however, I lost my ability to tolerate sitcoms about people who have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s not actually a show about nothing, it’s a show about selfish bastards. And it starts to drive me a little crazy as I’m waiting. Awkwardly. Alone. Looking, let’s face it, like someone who was just rolled out of bed to drive to the hospital. I’m in a mild version of my own personal hell, actually. An emergency waiting area with nothing to do but watch Seinfeld reruns.
A nurse comes out.
“Are you waiting for [X]?” she asks. I nod. “Would you like to wait with her?” Of course I would! Because I’ve been sitting here feeling guilty about a) being dick-y on the car ride over and b) her injury being partially my fault and c) I need to get away from Jerry Seinfeld!
The nurse leads me back into the triage area. A few passing nurses and other staffers smile at me when I pass. As I said, I’m an old pro at the middle of the night hospital visits. I can also identify the sympathetic, knowing smile a nurse will give the boyfriend/girlfriend/family member who is stuck waiting for the injured loved one in the other room.
They are not giving me that sympathetic smile. They’re giving me some other smile. I’m vaguely self-conscious. I don’t know this smile. It feels somewhere between approving and also the exact opposite of approving.
I arrive at her bedside, and she’s in a sling. I am ordered not to make her laugh, because it hurts her shoulder. I immediately make a joke, not on purpose. She laughs. It hurts her shoulder.
“So, you may not want to be here when the doctor gets back,” she says.
“Why not,” I say.
“Because they asked what I was doing at the time of the injury.”
And, she told me, she had answered, I wasn’t sure exactly when it occurred. So they asked her to list and to demonstrate what sort of motions she might have made with arm that night that could have lead to the injury.
Demonstrated the motions, yes.
No wonder they were looking at me funny, I said. They know everything.
Well, she says, it could’ve been worse, they could have assumed I was beating her. I make another joke-yes, of course, I beat you up but in order to avoid leaving marks I just pull on your arm! And she laughs, and I get yelled at again, because laughing hurts her arm. We’re better, then, suddenly. This was at the healthiest peak of our relationship, and I adored her just then. Things would end abruptly and harshly a month or two later, but for that moment, all was right in the world. Except her shoulder, but they were going to give her painkillers for that.
And then, a thought.
“Wait, isn’t your mom coming to town this weekend?” I ask.
She is. And her daughter will be wearing a sling. Because of an SRI.
“You’re going to tell your mom how this happened, aren’t you,” I say.
And she did.
I’m striking a popular phrase permanently from my lexicon. That phrase is: “I’ll do it if nobody else will.” Because this is how you end up doing a nude scene in a film based on one of your own short stories, based on your own dating life.
But, let me start at the beginning.
For the past four years or so, I’ve been abusing free blogging software in order to run a series of flash fiction/micro-fiction/insert-trendy-literary-terminology-here short stories. I started the blog because I had stopped writing for pleasure—I was a newspaper editor at the time, which, as any newspaper editor will tell you, doesn’t leave you with much time to do much else.
So I cranked up and began writing timed stories, a half hour, an hour, fifteen minutes, and if I finished a story in that time frame, good. Done. Published. If I didn’t, scrap it and start over. It was forced creativity. It remains one of the smartest things I have ever done with my time.
This went on, as I said, for four years and some of these will appear in this very publication, actually.
A theme developed, of course: love and dating in one’s twenties, from the guy perspective, for lack of a better way of putting it. Yes, there were some deviations from the theme—there are large chunks of two separate novellas in there, one of which is mythology-based horror and has no place among the rest of the shorts—but for the most part, the stories are about men and women interacting, the way we communicate and the way we don’t. It was a clearinghouse for half-baked thoughts on the stupid things we do to try to find happiness.
So there it sits, on the Internet, for people to see. And sometimes they do. In this case, the person who saw them was the co-director of a Web adventure series I’ve been involved in, playing a supporting character. I adore the creative team on the series, and consider them friends. One day, the co-director emails me that she’s been reading some of the short stories, and thinks several would make for great short films. I’m thrilled. Of course I’ll rewrite one into a screenplay! Just tell me which one! I say.
She picks one with a fairly pivotal R-rated nude scene. I actually agree that it’s one of the most cinematic of the shorts, and I know I can convert it into a script in a few hours at most.
Now, she says, we just need an actor brave enough to do that scene! And I, being an actor and also having nothing even remotely resembling self-preservation instincts or common sense, say the offending phrase, “I’ll do it if no one else will.”
Great! She says. And suddenly, I’m playing a character based on what I can only refer to as a really awful version of myself. Also, my rear-end will appear on screen in a way that, for several reasons, can’t fully be written out of the script.
I will never be able to run for political office now. I’m doomed.
Let me run down the absolutely nightmarish points of self-consciousness and self-doubt which follow this. You’d think, as the writer and now lead actor, I’d be worried about the script or my performance. Nope! I’ve used the narrator before, a dumping ground for dark observations and cynicism, and I’m comfortable portraying him. I write the stories to be read out loud, actually, so I’m comfortable with how the dialogue will sound on screen. And I trust the directors completely, so I know they’ll do a wonderful job building the short. No, no, performance and script are not the problem.
Full disclosure: I’m an ex fat kid. Seriously. Prior to unrelated life-changing minor surgery and a growth spurt at age 15, I was built like Chunk from The Goonies. As most ex fat kids will tell you, this is a thing that will haunt you the rest of your natural life. I run three to five miles a day and have tried every single weight loss product on the market not out of vanity or a desire to be healthy but because I live in terror that I will some day get fat again. The top of my refrigerator is littered with bottles of polysyllabic “supplements” meant to keep me lean. I’ve taken years off my life with this stuff. I’m convinced of this.
So, in preparation for this film—which is, mind you, a twelve-page script, not some opus—I have hacked my diet apart, amped up my workouts, and bought an electronic device which shocks your abdominal muscles into shape—which is a topic in and of itself. I don’t know if any of this is working. And believe me, I’ve tried to figure it out. By standing with my back turned to a full-length mirror and trying to see how I’ll look in the scene. Frequently, my cat Harley will be looking at me through the mirror, with an expression that smacks of “what in the hell are you doing?”
So yeah, my self-loathing has been kicked into overdrive. Also of concern is that I, like most writers, mine real events in my life for dialogue and themes. And when these things become public, people know. The lead female in the story is not actually based on anyone specific, fortunately. She does, however, make two key statements I’ve yanked wholesale from women I’ve dated. I’m still friends with both of them and they are, to be honest, much kinder people than the character in the script. And as much as you can tell someone “that is not based on you,” if they hear the character say something they did, in fact, say…
You see where the anxiety comes from. What will really sting is if they both think the character is meant to represent them and I have two angry friends/ex-girlfriends to worry about.
And we haven’t even cast the actress who will be playing that role yet. I’ve flat-out abdicated any responsibility for casting that part. Casting a woman to play someone who might be mistaken for a representation of one (or two) of your ex-girlfriends in a scene that takes place in a bedroom which you wrote and you will be the lead actor in… Were I to be the one to make the casting decision there, I can say without hesitation there is no way it will end well.
Fortunately the directors are smarter than I am. They’ll find the right actress. Of course then I need to fret that actresses will turn the part down because I’m in the scene. “Oh. Him? Nah, I changed my mind. Get me out of here.” I have backed away from the casting process not only out of propriety, but also out of fear of rejection, obviously.
The real comedy in the end, though, is that I’m proud of the story. It’s about two people who connect to each other only through their mutual disconnect to the rest of the world, and it’s about someone who wakes up one morning haunted by someone who will never come back again and sets off to dull the pain, for just a little while. I’m looking forward to filming it. I want to film it.
But I’ll be living off of black coffee and lettuce until we’re done.